Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cattle in the Classroom: Educating Students about Montana Beef

          Driving through Montana, many car passengers may glimpse a herd of cattle grazing among a backdrop of mountains and wide open space. For the members of the Lockwood Boys and Girls Club, this image was brought closer to home in November when a 6 month calf graced the club with his presence for an afternoon visit.  Buckshot, a 6-month old calf, belongs to Skip King who is a small time cattle rancher and supporter of the Yellowstone Valley Boys and Girls Club. I first met Skip after discovering he had generously donated a hoop house to the Lockwood Boys and Girls Club this past spring for use in our garden program. 

          When I contacted Skip to learn more, I discovered that not only does he own the three locations of King’s Ace Hardware in Billings, he also happens to have  a cattle ranching “hobby.” Skip immediately noticed my interest in his hobby and generously offered to bring in one of his more docile calves, Buckshot, to visit the club! Forget the students - I could hardly contain my excitement!

On a blustery November day, nearly a hundred young Lockwood Boys & Girls club members lined up to spend some time with a “real life cow, not a dog,” as one student corrected another. Each young student scrambled into the straw lined trailer, three at a time, gingerly stepping to avoid any cow dung and gathering around Buckshot to say hello. They spoke in overdone stage whispers, having been warned that shrieking and yelling might scare the calf. 

Even the most reluctant left with a smile, though there was quite a bit of nose pinching. “It SMELLS in here!” they exclaimed, unaccustomed to being up close and personal with a farm animal. After meeting Buckshot the club members gathered to ask Skip questions. The students were shocked to find out that one head of beef cattle, which means one cow, costs around 2,000 dollars when it’s full grown, and around 400 dollars when it is first born. Hopes of owning a cow for a pet were visibly dashed as they mentally added up their savings. Club members also learned that about 45% of the cow is used for meat, and that many ranchers sell their cattle out of the state where they are slaughtered and processed. Surprisingly, the students didn’t mind the idea of eating Buckshot, rather they didn’t understand why he or other calves would be sold to someone outside of Montana. 

One student asked Skip, “So can I call you for beef instead of going to the grocery store?” Unless my ears deceived me, that is a direct request for Montana beef getting directly to Montana families.  Let’s continue to educate students about where their food comes from, and before long, they’ll be the ones leading the charge on local meat!

Written by FoodCorps service member Maggie Harkins, serving with the Lockwood Boys & Girls Club in Billings, MT

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sneaky & Strategic: A New Approach to Eating More Veggies

I stood in front of a classroom of 25 fourth and fifth graders at Cornelius Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell as they gleefully ate big, warm bites of brownie with brightly colored frosting. You might think this scene would be a FoodCorps service member’s worst nightmare—kids eating decadent, sugary desserts in class!—but I was grinning from ear to ear.

Why? Because within several months of teaching after-school cooking classes in the Kalispell Public School District, I’ve discovered a strategy to introduce reluctant children to new fruits and veggies. I’ve learned how to be a little bit sneaky, for a good cause.

And I can promise you, these were not your average brownies.

I’m never dishonest or misleading when teaching a cooking class full of elementary school students. Instead, I believe it’s all about letting the kids’ enthusiasm around their favorite, familiar dishes—like these brownies, French fries, or pizza—distract them from the likely unfamiliar leafy, rooted, and brightly colored produce sitting on their cutting boards. Like a game-winning football play or a shrewd military strategy, I’ve had almost universal success with this “distract and conquer” approach. I have discovered that if I “distract” the students with good flavors, familiar recipe names, delicious aromas, or the excitement of trying a new food for the first time, the students won’t mind foreign, or even previously detested, healthy foods making an appearance.

It is like the old farmer’s trick of slipping a new chicken into the roost at night so that in the morning when all the other hens wake up, it’s as if the newbie is an old friend. When a child is engaged and excited about participating in the cooking process, he will barely realize he’s been eating lentils and kabocha squash for months, and he is more likely to choose that food when it is served in the lunchroom.

Sometimes I even disclose my stealthy skills to the students: I talk to them about “tricking yourself” into eating more fruits and vegetables every day by adding them to smoothies, baked goods or soups in which you can hardly detect their flavor. We have even used this idea to make experimental recipes like chard and red pepper smoothies, roasted pumpkin hummus, spinach nachos, kale chips and Greek yogurt dip.

“Who loves brownies?!” I shouted, as I discreetly held a bag of local Montana black lentils. We preheated the oven and got to work on the recipe while I casually mentioned that we would be using pulses instead of flour, as if I’d never baked brownies any other way. None of the students seemed startled. If the recipe calls for locally-grown, protein and mineral rich lentils instead of all-purpose flour, but they still look like brownies, taste like brownies, and smell like brownies, then everybody’s happy.

While the brownies baked in the oven, we made creamy frosting from avocados and boiled local beets. The kids had so much fun watching the bright cherry color develop in the Vitamix, that they didn’t seem to miss their regular artificial toppings. And best of all, they weren’t afraid of vegetables in their dessert.

After class, a couple of students came up to me, whispering to each other and giggling. They asked if they could have another brownie for their parents. “Of course!” I replied, and as I spooned brownie onto a napkin for them I asked, “Are you sure you two aren’t just going to eat these yourselves?” They just laughed. 

I found out later that only some of the brownies made it to their moms, but I didn’t mind in the least. Sure, they were being a little sneaky, but then again, so was I.

Written by FoodCorps Service Member Jessica Manly from Kalispell, MT

Sneaky Bean Brownies and No-Dye Avocado Frosting

Prep Time:
10 mins
Cook Time:
25-30 mins
12 brownies


·    1 1/2 cups (or 1 16oz can) drained cooked black beans or cooked lentils
•   3 eggs
•   3 Tbsp vegetable, coconut, or olive oil
•   1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
•   1/4 tsp salt
•   3 tsp vanilla extract
•   1 tsp baking powder (for more cake-like brownies)
•   1/2-3/4 cup sweetener of your choice (honey, sugar, agave, stevia, etc.)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8x8 square baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Combine the beans, eggs, oil, cocoa powder, salt, vanilla extract, and sweetener, in a blender; blend until smooth.
3. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. 
4. Bake in the preheated oven until the top is dry and the edges start to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 25- 30 minutes.

No-Dye Avocado Frosting:
•   1 ripe avocado
•   ½ roasted or boiled beet
•   1 tablespoon coconut oil, softened
•   ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
•   ½ cup sweetener of your choice (honey, sugar, agave, stevia, etc.)
•   Pinch salt
1. Whip avocado, beet, and oil in a blender until combined and no lumps remain.
2. Add in vanilla and salt.
3. Add sweetener slowly and mix until combined. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Interconnected World of Teaching: Students Aren’t the Only Learners

When she got it, my heart jumped. The third grade classroom fell silent. Minutes before, I had been incessantly hammering the merits of decomposers to the class as we worked our way through a series of lessons about nutrient cycling. Now, a new note struck my throat, causing me to choke, but just a bit. 

The students, of course, did not notice that I could have cried for the joy of true learning taking place in that moment.  The short blonde haired girl in the back of the class had described to the rest of us the path taken by the sun’s energy as it works its way up the food chain. It was evident that this third grader had suddenly grasped--and articulated--that this “chain” was much more of an interconnected web than any of her classmates had realized before. But it wasn’t just this revelation that started my eyes to watering, it was the way that she concluded, “and then microbes break down the deer’s body and all of that energy can be used again by other things.”

YES, that was it. This earth is the mother of all efficiency experts. “ALL of that energy can be used again,” and again, and again… The First Law of Thermodynamics, a concept that was just truly
grasped by a 3rd grader, right before my eyes.  The conservation of energy is a wildly simple idea, but its applicability to the nutrient cycling which keeps our planet in balance is ever important to consider.

From the first activity I led with the third grade class to introduce the concept of an ecosystem, when we each took on the role of a different part of the garden’s food web and connected ourselves with a string of yarn into an interdependent ecosystem, I had envisioned the moment when these students would grasp this concept. The moment when a person realizes that we are fundamentally stardust; that the atoms now giving form to our world are the same atoms that dripped from pen to paper as Jefferson first wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Barring myself from the existential pondering that began to enchant me, I drew my attention back to the other hands that went up around the classroom.  A curly headed kid in the back of the room piped up: “So, the sunflowers that died around the apple tree could become a part of the apple that grows on the tree, and if I eat one of those apples it could become a part of me?!” Yes, yes, yes! These students were making the connections, and I, having little experience with the joys of teaching, was beginning to understand just why they (the teachers) do it.

The week following the garden food web lesson, we picked through the bits of decomposing refuse that we had put into classroom compost bags, analyzing the outcomes of our experiment. I was wowed yet again at the connections these students were able to make and the advanced language they used to describe decomposition!

One rosy cheeked young boy, when asked why the pieces of plastic cup that we included in the classroom compost bags hadn’t broken down, promptly responded: “Plastic cups are not a natural resource!” “Well then,” I replied, “Plastic does come from a natural resource though. Plastics are made from crude oil out of the earth, a fossil fuel, like gasoline.” After some funny faces, the young, astute kid responded, “Yeah, but it’s man made.”  And right he was. Plastics are nothing like the grapes or the kale that we had put into our compost bag. Slowly, the third grade students constructed the idea that soil bacteria don’t recognize these man made things, so the bacteria have to work a lot harder to decompose them.

I leave the classroom each day amazed. As I walked into the principal’s office after class with a smile on my face and gratitude in my voice, he jovially reminded me that there are “not many jobs as rewarding and fulfilling as teaching. It is inevitable that those kids will say something that will turn your head and leave you with a grin.”
Written by Demetrius Fassas, service member in Ennis, MT with Madison Farm 2 Fork